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Tis the season to be jolly or not!

14th November 2014

Christmas is presented as the quintessential family event each year. A time when people far and wide are drawn together for an annual love in. In November the adverts start and the season of good will is upon us. However, for many this is nothing but an illusion and Christmas places serious pressures on many families, increasing tensions which have existed for some time. Each year people apply the same formula, expecting different results and frequently they are disappointed.

For those with children there is an increasing pressure to buy the latest and the greatest gifts en masse. Many families simply cannot afford to keep up with these demands or if they do, it is by getting into significant amounts of personal debt.

Additionally, families are simply not accustomed to spending such large amounts of time with each other and it is often reported that “cabin fever” is experienced by all. Existing tensions are often manifest at this time, perhaps fuelled by seasonal excesses of all kinds. An article in the Guardian in December 2013 highlighted the seasonal spike recorded in Courts dealing with domestic violence and public order cases, focusing on the Manchester area which showed an increase on Christmas Day of 75 percent on the normal reported daily count.

Apparently, many of the people who ended up in court (and clearly this is only the tip of an iceberg), resulted from the most mundane of arguments. The cases were trans-generational involving parents and children as well as adults. Meanwhile REFUGE paradoxically report that they receive fewer calls at Christmas than at other times of the year and fewer visits to their website. REFUGE consider that it can be very difficult for women experiencing the stresses of Christmas to report or access help as they are spending more time with an abusive partner who may monitor closely what they do.

The financial costs of Christmas are well known and significant. A YouGov survey from 2011 suggested that 11% of Britain’s will lose track of spending at Christmas while 31% will go into some form of debt to fund Christmas related costs.

This annual cycle may prove too much for many families and sadly, January and February are frequently times of the year when the workload of family lawyers increases substantially. Many clients report that they are simply not prepared to endure “another Christmas like that” (there is a similar upsurge of work in the months following the summer holidays).

The point about Christmas seems to be this: it does not of itself create problems, quite the reverse, it is the time of the year for many to experience the pleasure of being with their loved ones. However, for those who live in difficult circumstances it highlights and in some cases it makes intolerable the tensions which have been present for some time.

The New Year often ushers in a desire to change oneself. Whether that be through promising not to overindulge in things which are not good for us, go to a gym or to make more substantial life changes, either way there is a spirit of optimism and change. This may explain why many people feel the strong desire to change their marital status or living arrangements at this time of year.

However, before rushing into potentially life changing decisions it is important to be aware of the consequences and what you may be entitled to should you separate from the person you live with.

The legal implications of separation can be significant as well as the practical implications. Many clients approach me wanting advice about “what would happen if”, so that they are aware of their options before they act.

Separation for many people is a process of deliberation and as well as legal advice, a number of other professionals may also be needed (financial advisers, counsellors and accountants). People in this situation often have a mixture of excitement and fear which means that without guidance, hasty decisions can be made.

Whilst leaving a relationship is generally a very difficult step to take, increasingly many are seeing this as a liberating experience. A recent article on the BBC website highlighted the growing trend, imported from the United States, of positively celebrating the end of a marriage and the finalising of a divorce. Examples include a woman who together with her female friends flew to Las Vegas for a long weekend. The group enjoyed a visit to a shooting range (the “bride” peppered her wedding dress) and other entertainments organised by one of the cities fastest growing business sectors, divorce party planning.

Closer to home in the Netherlands The Divorce Hotel offers couple a weekend divorce whereby they check in on a Friday and check out on a Sunday divorced. (I should point out that I have no interest in either company). While these may seem an embodiment of national quirkiness, the point is that for many leaving a relationship which no longer works, although difficult, is in the long run a positive experience.

What can make the transition smoother and less fraught, is timely advice as to the implications, guidance on the pre-separation enquiries you should make and a Q&A from an advisor on what will happen if….Equally, if you are the one left behind, which can be a much more difficult thing, support from a network of relevant professionals can make all the difference.

Nowadays, few family lawyers will advocate taking a hostile approach to your spouse or former partner and it is vital to explore all options at an early stage and avoid “taking positions”. This also involves considering non-adversarial options such as mediation or collaborative law and seeing going to court always as a step of last resort.

So in summary, if you find that Santa brought an unwelcome present, it may be that timely advice may transform the spirt of Christmases future.

If you would like advice in relation to issue raised in this article please contact Jim Richards at George Ide LLP to assist you further.

Family Law
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